Push vs. Pull: Thoughts on the Attraction of Characters

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I’m generally not a fan of yandere characters, but I feel that I can understand why some people love them.

In a lot of my favorite characters there is a kind of intensity that emanates from them. Whether it’s Ogiue from Genshiken‘s withering stare, or Urabe Mikoto’s eccentric behavior in Mysterious Girlfriend X, it’s like their very beings pierce my soul and linger there for a while.

From there, it’s a hop, skip, and jump towards tsundere, and then eventually yandere as well. In other words, yandere characters exist on a spectrum where powerful emotions (sexual or otherwise) are valued, and their feelings are so overwhelming that it warps their minds. “Deep love” they call it.

This intensity has gotten me to think more broadly, past the typical labels, such as yandere, genki girl, Kansai native, etc. What I’m beginning to form is a theory of character attraction that takes a lot of these categories and places them into two distinctions: “push characters” and “pull characters.”

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Push characters are like many of the ones stated above. It is as if the characters’ attitudes, visual look, and other qualities invade your space. They pierce and break down the barriers in your heart. Kurosaki Rendou, creator of Houkago Play and other racy titles, specializes in this type of character for both guys and girls. Akashi from Kuroko’s Basketball is also what I’d call a “push character.” They can perhaps be called aggressive characters as well, but I don’t think that it fits entirely neatly. Rather, in shounen terms, it’s more like they’re the “strong fists” of Rock Lee from Naruto or Raoh from Fist of the North Star.

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Pull characters, then, are more like the “gentle fists” of Hyuuga Hinata (Naruto) or Toki (Fist of the North Star). Rather than striking actively, their auras are passive and receptive. It is as if they have a gravity or magnetism that draws you to them. Softer, kinder characters would fall into this category, such as Daidouji Tomoyo from Cardcaptor Sakura, Maetel from Galaxy Express 999, or Teppei from Kuroko’s Basketball. It’s as if their warmth envelops your being.

Now there are a few aspects I’m thinking through as I bring out this half-formed way of considering characters. The first is that, many characters probably don’t fall into one category or the other. Sort of like a Myer-Briggs personality test, the “lesser” quality still exists. For example, I’d consider Koizumi Hanayo from Love Live! to be a “pull character” because of her typically shy personality, but the excitement of her two main loves—rice and idols—is enough to transform her into a “push character.”

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Second, perhaps this distinction is actually entirely subjective, and one person’s “push character” is another person’s “pull character.” Does this render the terms meaningless, or is it more like moe where a broader understanding exists but the minutiae can get incredibly personal?

Lastly, to what extent do these terms match up with the idea of “seme” and “uke” characters in BL. Would “push characters” be those who tend to be seme, while “pull characters” are more commonly uke? If that’s the case, could this be a way to translate those terms to other types of relationships, such as heterosexual, yuri, or whatever other combinations can exist?

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The Relationship Between Classic Toei Heroines and Moe Characters

Not too long ago I half-jokingly suggested that the first moe character was Hilda (pictured above), the heroine from the 1968 animated film Hols: Prince of the Sun. The basis of this was that Hilda was the creation of a young Takahata and Miyazaki, who would later go on to form Studio Ghibli, and if you’ve ever read Miyazaki’s recollection of his first time watching Legend of the White Serpent, you’ll not only see similarities between Hilda and Pai-Nan, the heroine of Legend of the White Serpent, but also between his reaction and the way fans of Key games talk about their beloved works: Miyazaki actually cried the whole night, and fell in love with Pai-Nan. Of course, if Pai-Nan had such an impression, then it’s possible to argue that she’s the first moe character, but regardless of what character has the distinction, I suspect that the tragic element which defines both of these characters also has an influence on the development of female characters in anime and manga, and by extension the idea of moe.

In the trailer to Hols: Prince of the Sun, Hilda is introduced, accompanied by on-screen text saying, “Am I a demon, or a human being?” This highlights the inner conflict of her character, as Hilda is both the sister of the main villain as well as the love interest of the hero. She plays both a romantic and an antagonistic role, and the fact that she struggles over which is her “true self” is the inherent tragedy of the character. Star-crossed lovers are nothing new to media, of course, but according to The Pretty Character Chronicles: The History of Animation Heroines, 1958-1999, the early Toei animated films, of which both Hols and Legend of the White Serpent are included (though these titles are themselves about a decade apart), often feature heroines who begin the movies as antagonists.

Pai-Nan doesn’t quite fit this concept, as she’s more of a tragically cursed character, a princess in need of rescue in the vein of  a classic Disney Princess. This makes a degree of sense, given that Toei’s goal was to try to be the “Disney of the East,” but when you look at heroines in classic Disney films, none of them fulfill the role that Hilda or other similar Toei heroines play as partial antagonists. In fact, if you look at Disney animated films as a whole, there’s pretty much only one character who does fit this bill: Megara from Hercules, a film from 1997. In other words, “damsel-in-distress” is not quite the function of these Toei heroines.

What relevance does this have to current anime and the presence of moe, then? My argument is that the tragedy component of heroines such as Hilda has been reduced or compacted to varying degrees, so when you have a character who has traits commonly considered moe, such as a character who suffers from being short in a slice-of-life comedy, what you’re seeing is an on-going series of tiny tragedies, like with Yuno in Hidamari Sketch. The tsundere, especially the more contemporary tsundere type, is another example, as a character who struggles with being true to her feelings can be considered tragic in her own way. Hidamari Sketch also provides one such character in the form of Natsume, whose feelings for the character Sae remain unrequited due to Natsume’s own stubbornness.

While I think the criticism of moe characters as feeding off the desire of men to want to rescue the poor female victim is valid to a good extent, I think that the quality which has transmitted itself from those early Toei days all the way to the current age is not so much that of the “helpless girl” but that of “helplessness.” A girl tragically trapped in a situation can be moe, but what’s considered even more moe is the heroine who can’t be helped no matter what. In such a case, powerlesssness becomes not so much the half-way point in an elaborate power fantasy, but the end point in and of itself, with the potential for empathy between not just the viewer and the hero, but the viewer and the heroine. Of course, that’s somewhat of an extreme case, and the end result really depends on how individual works wish to resolve the inner conflict of the descendants of the tragic antagonistic heroines.

Getting You Kicked Out of Your Hotel is Merely a Sign of Affection

“Encountering a durian for the first time is not unlike encountering someone with an overbearing personality; the strong odor and strange taste are like a “facade” to protect a most delicate and delightful character.”

With that we can conclude that durians are, in fact, tsundere.

I-it’s not like I want to be tsundere, okay?!

Yes, this is another post about Aisaka Taiga. Let’s call this a Taiga Weekend Carnival.

Previously, I’ve established my belief that moe is tied to empathy, it is the connection of viewer to character in regards to some type of weakness, though the character may not necessarily be weak, physically, mentally, or emotionally. Think of it as a character having relatable character traits-which-may-be-interpreted as flaws. In this regard, Aisaka Taiga, the tora in Toradora, is one of the most effectively moe tsundere characters I have ever seen, a tsundere moe on the level of Ogiue. Tsundere has become a very common trope in otaku-oriented media, so to describe what makes Taiga a very moe character is to explain why she stands out from her peers. And to explain that is to explain why Taiga is tsundere.

Taiga is a girl who has difficulty expressing her own emotions. When Taiga speaks, her words are the culmination of 1001 battles fought inside of her mind. It’s a violent battle, and the victor emerges not without a few scars. The result is that Taiga comes across as rude, blunt, perhaps even shy. Unlike many of her contemporaries at Tsundere Academy, who use their brash attitudes to actively hide how they feel, or Ogiue, whose tsundere is caused by years of deep-seated self-loathing, Taiga’s outward attitude is the consequence of falling short of a greater goal, that of being able to accurately express one’s feelings through words. Taiga is tsundere, but only because she can’t help it.

Clumsy, socially awkward, unable to convey the proper meaning in words when talking to others, this describes more than just Taiga, this describes a feeling that hits close to home for me and I’m sure many others. Even if we’ve gotten better over time, we can still remember the days when talking was one of the most difficult things we’ve ever had to do, and are reminded constantly that for us introverted folk, being social is not a natural talent but one that has to be learned and built upon. It is from the people watching that Taiga truly generates her moe.

Tsundere characters, be they the traditional type which slowly turn from tsun to dere, or the modern type which switch back and forth constantly, are generally girls to be sought, to be pursued. They are the goal. Taiga is not the goal. Taiga is us.

The Tsun to Dere Ratio

For better or worse, tsundere are an increasingly common character type in anime, and as stated by the illustrious Shiraishi Minoru, they generally come in two flavors: traditional tsundere who are tsun and slowly become dere, and modern tsundere who switch between tsun and dere frequently. As one might expect from referring to the latter as “modern,” that type of tsundere is more common these days.

This isn’t about discussing which one is better or worse though. What I wonder about is why there has been this shift in the first place. I don’t think it’s as simple as otaku wanting instant gratification or that their attention spans are getting smaller, though those things could actually be happening. Could it be in its own way a fight to make more female characters with an aggressive side to them, or an attempt to soften aggressive characters? Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the middle, as any fan of tsundere will tell you that the appeal comes from the combination of the two sides, though I think they will disagree on specifics.

In thinking about the appeal that the tsundere has for viewers of anime, the notion of risk/reward comes to mind. With a modern tsundere, it is very obvious when a character is acting “dere.” The first instance of the switch from tsun to dere happens very early to establish it as part of their character. For a more traditional tsundere, the switch happens much later. The traditional tsundere also tends to be less abusive towards their love interests than the modern variety. Do you get strong love after much effort, or do you get a strange, convoluted love regularly such that you’re not sure if the girl is interested at all?

In looking at traditional vs modern tsundere, their specific appeal is actually pretty different. A traditional tsundere can be won over by a guy through sheer effort. Even if she doesn’t like him at first, the guy tries so hard to be the man for her that she is moved by his genuine interest in her. It appeals to the nerd in the sense that what they lack in good looks or charisma they can make up for in passion. A modern tsundere however is more like a girl who is secretly shy, a girl who is afraid to admit that she like a guy. This is more for the guy who believes that maybe, just maybe there is a girl out there who likes him but neither side is brave enough to initiate conversation.

Effort vs Potential.

Time vs Space.